The way forward for the new Biden administration cannot be the way back. Harking back to the Obama era and stacking his administration with “Obamians” will not suffice to restore America’s credibility and leadership. As president of the United States, Joe Biden has to look further, aim higher, and act bigger.
It is important for Biden to reverse much of Donald Trump’s policies, but that will not erase his legacy or undo the damage to America’s soul. Certainly not when the bitter and vengeful former president and his allies continue to lurk around in the shadows.
Trump’s authoritarian attempts to restore white supremacy have thankfully failed miserably, mainly because America has moved on. But he did succeed in causing so much damage to the fabric of American society and democracy that it will take years to clean up.
That is why Biden will have to tread carefully, addressing the social and economic grievances of the Republican base without alienating his own Democratic base.
Democrats have long run and won elections on the promise of cleaning up a Republican mess.
From Franklin D Roosevelt’s (FDR) 1933 victory amid the Great Depression and John F Kennedy’s 1961 ascendance following the late 1950s economic recession, to Barack Obama’s historic triumph following the Iraq war and the 2008 financial meltdown, Democratic presidents have repeatedly faced the challenge of restoring US prosperity and leadership. And somewhat succeeded.
Such selective reading of the past century may be all too self-righteous, but never have Democrats and liberals, including liberal Republicans, shown as much enthusiasm for turning the page on a Republican presidency as they do today.
Biden’s cabinet picks show a great deal of cultural and gender diversity, albeit from within the establishment. If policy is indeed shaped by official appointments, the new administration shows some promise.
Of course, many Democrats would have liked to see the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the new administration, but my guess is, Biden hopes to work with traditional and liberal Republicans in order to end the Trumpist mindset that divided the country.
This would prove controversial and even alienate many progressive Democrats, but it could potentially widen the rift within the Republican Party and improve the Democrats’ position come midterm elections.
Biden already committed to reverse a plethora of Trump’s executive orders on his first day in office, including lifting the “Muslim Ban” and rejoining the Paris climate accord.
He will also try to move rapidly to fix Trump’s shameful and deadly pandemic record by issuing new directives to combat the coronavirus.
These are important steps that signal his seriousness to turn the page on the Trump era, but not enough to reckon with his legacy and tackle America’s social and racial injustices that elevated him to the presidency.
That is why Biden needs to go beyond what Obama did after the calamitous years of the Bush presidency. He must design a new American covenant along the lines of FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
He could start by embracing and implementing a wide-ranging national revival programme that follows FDR’s three Rs: relief for the many unemployed through direct government support; recovery through greater infrastructural investments and market subsidies; and reform of the economy through regulations and welfare programmes.
Addressing poverty and inequality is indispensable for tackling the deeper more contentious issues of racial and societal tensions that are dividing and paralysing America.
Needless to say, a struggling, divided and unstable America is an America that is unfit to lead the world. Its attraction, as the cliché goes, comes not only from the example of its power, but the power of its example, as a stable, democratic and prosperous superpower.
So once Biden restores what he calls the “soul of American” – its democratic civility, economic vitality and political liberality – he will be able to proceed with restoring its credibility.
Reinstating American leadership will require rebuilding alliances, strengthening global institutions and upholding international agreements, which Trump abandoned.
Unfortunately, many among America’s allies, like its European and South Asian partners, have already moved on. They have begun to shape their own autonomous security structures and some have even signed new trade deals with China.
Although they are pleased with the changes in Washington and with America reengaging with the world in a responsible diplomatic fashion, America’s closest allies will not rush to embrace US leadership as in the past and will not be swayed by mere sweet talk or hollow assurances.
Biden will have to work harder than his predecessors to regain their trust. He will also need to accept more equitable transatlantic and transpacific relationships based on mutual respect and mutual interest.
These alliances are indispensable for America to deal with, not to say stand up to, a rising China and emboldened Russia, its two greatest challenges in the decades to come.
When it comes to great power politics, Biden will have to restore that which distinguished America from its rivals, albeit at times selectively and cynically, i.e. its emphasis on and promotion of human rights and democratic values.
And nowhere is this as urgent as it is in the Middle East, where the Trump administration has abandoned all that is politically legal, decent and humane.
Biden must put human rights at the centre of America’s regional policy. This begins by pressuring America’s clients, Saudi Arabia and Israel, to end the war in Yemen and the occupation of Palestine, respectively.
Returning to the Iran nuclear deal is commendable and necessary, but it must go hand-in-hand with ensuring Iranian respect for human rights and legal norms. As the region’s self-appointed guardian superpower, America shares responsibility for the civil wars in Syria and Libya, which Obama enabled and Trump left to fester.
Biden says America is shaped by a constant battle between its better angels and darkest impulses. This is also true for foreign policy.
It is high time for its better angels to prevail in America and beyond.